Can Hardware Startups Go Circular?

circular-hardware-value-pivot

Successful startups like Uber, Airbnb and Netflix have demonstrated that customers are willing to embrace the circular economic principles of sharing and virtualization. Such innovative business models challenge the traditional concept of ownership and begin to decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources.

However, not all startups can replace physical products with virtual services or sharing platforms. People still need food to eat, hygiene products to stay clean, and electronics to remain connected. The question becomes: can startups decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources if they produce a physical product?

The Problem – Resource Scarcity

The current linear economic model of ‘take, make, and dispose’ assumes that there is a boundless supply of raw materials available for extraction from the earth. The reality is that the planet has a limited stock of non-renewable raw materials.

According to a recent CSR Netherlands report more than 20% of the elements in the periodic table will be exhausted in less than 50 years. A further 15% of the remaining elements will disappear in less than 100 years.

periodic-table-remaining-resources

Source: CSR Netherlands,. International CSR in the Dutch Chemical Sector. Figure 5 – Elemental Unsustainability – How We Are Running Out Of Traditional Mineral Resources. 2015. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.

The world’s supply of virgin materials like indium, gallium, and tin will be completely exhausted in less than a lifetime if consumption continues at today’s rate.

Why would anyone care about running out of strange sounding things like indium and gallium? Because our modern world would cease to function without them – your smartphone, your laptop, your television; they are all made from periodic table elements extracted from earth’s finite reserves.

Indium? You need that for your smartphone screen to function.

Gallium? You need that to produce the chip in your laptop.

Tin? You need that to solder the electronics in your television.

Still not convinced? Check out this infographic from Compound Interest highlighting the elements in your smartphone:

the-chemical-elements-of-a-smartphone-v2-medium

According to the latest United Nations University report, the amount of e-waste discarded globally exceeded 42 million tonnes in 2014. The e-waste contained almost 2 million tonnes of copper, 1000 tonnes of silver, and 300 tonnes of gold.

The global electronic waste discarded in 2014 represents approximately $52 billion of reusable resources.

The value generated during the extraction of raw materials, energy input during manufacturing, resource use for packaging, and the distribution of goods is all lost when a product is discarded as waste.

electronic-waste-value-pivot

Given that the average lifespan of a physical consumer product is only 6 months before being trashed 1 our society is losing raw materials and precious resources at an alarming rate.

The Solution – Circular Design

Creating physical products for a circular economy requires the application of two key principles:

1) Design Thinking 
Circular product design begins with thinking about the entire lifecycle. Designers need to look at raw materials as an investment, not just something that goes to waste. Products need to be designed for reuse and material recovery.

2) Materials Selection
The circularity of a product is determined by the selection of materials during the design process. Designers need to evaluate a materials scarcity, physical limitations, recyclability, hazards, renewability, and available substitutes.

One prevailing concept in the field of circular material selection is cradle to cradle design, conceived by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. The idea revolves around the understanding that there is no waste in nature, only nutrients for other processes.

Within the framework of cradle to cradle design, product materials fall into one of two types of categories; biological nutrients or technical nutrients. Biological nutrients are designed to safely re-enter the biosphere at the end of the use cycle as organic materials that decompose in the soil. Technical nutrients are designed for reuse and continuous circulation without entering the biosphere.

biological_technical_cycles

Cradle to cradle design is a good framework for identifying material selection opportunities, however; design thinking is required to ensure products are designed to recapture and reuse valuable materials, energy and components.

Check out the next article to learn about the important role designers play in ensuring products are more than waste destined for the landfill.

Credits – Icons used in biological and technical cycle infographics designed by Freepik from Flaticon.

References: 1: Paul Hawken, Natural Capitalism (1999) p. 81.

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